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Desperately Seeking Desi Definition

Since I was a child, I have been desperately trying to learn Hindi to no avail. I had given up until 2008 when I decided to go back to India after 10 long years. It was the perfect time to revisit my Indian roots and try to learn the language again.

 

Although I understood some Hindi, I couldn't converse in it with any fluency, much less in Kachi or Tulu, my parents' native tongues. I didn't know how to cook any of my grandmother's family recipes (and she lived with us growing up), I had one Indian friend, I rarely went to India (thanks to years of family squabbles), and I never celebrated any Indian holidays. At the very least I could learn Hindi so I would have something to pass on to my progeny.

 

So I figured the best way to learn was to speak to my parents. It seemed like an easy enough proposition. The only problem is my parents had zero patience for my learning curve and it was just much easier for them to speak in English. Our phone conversations usually went like this:

 

"Hi mom."

 

"Hi Resh. So I went to the Trader Joe's the other day and I found this—"

 

"Hindi bolo!"

 

"Fine," she would say begrudgingly. As she prattled on in Hindi, I would listen intently trying to catch everything she was saying.

 

"Tumne sasta baingain laya?"

 

"No!! That's not what I said I can't explain this in Hindi. I said the eggplant…."

 

I would get frustrated and upset and resign myself to the fact that if I was going to learn Hindi, I would have to do it on my own.

 

Growing up Indian, I often felt pressured (like many other South Asian kids) to get good grades, stay out of trouble, get into a top-tier school, make a lot of money, all the while remaining a virgin and drug-free. These were all the attributes that I came to associate with "being" Indian.

 

But did all of these things really make me Indian? When was I going to learn about history, language and culture? How to properly put on a sari? How to roll a roti?

 

The problem is my parents seemed less concerned with me learning about Indian culture and more about me not turning into a wild crazy American teenager along the lines of American Pie or Girls Gone Wild. Perhaps it was years of watching Jerry Springer or General Hospital that had caused my mom to become so fearful. Or perhaps it was my dad's partying in America during his graduate student days that made him want to lock us up. Either way, over time my perception of Indian culture started to seem less a celebration of our heritage and more like a set of rules and regulations.

 

It was more about what I couldn't do than what I could. Don't date. Don't stay out late. Don't have sex until you're married. And definitely don't study liberal arts in college. And for God's sake don't do anything to embarrass your parents.

 

Trying to be a respectable Indian girl growing up left me feeling rather out of place with my non-Indian peers, who seemed much more experienced in worldly affairs such as boys and booze than I was. Yet when I attempted to fit in with other South Asians in high school I often felt rejected, because I was often deemed "too white" by other desis. What exactly does that mean, I would wonder? Was it because I listen to The Rolling Stones instead of Jay-Z? And conversely would listening to hip hop make you "too black"? Or was it because I would rather watch Brad Pitt than SRK?

 

The absurdity of such stereotypical expectations, the early curfews, the ban on dating, and the intense paranoia about the opposite sex deflowering their virgin daughter, set me up like a pressure cooker waiting to explode. Frustrated that I couldn't seem to fit in with either American or Indian culture, I decided to chuck all rules I grew up with out the proverbial window. I went to college and did everything my parents didn't want me to do: have sex, get drunk, and smoke a lot of weed. And become (horror of all horrors) a liberal arts major.

 

In my young mind, being Indian meant fitting into a mold, a cookie-cutter formula that assured I was like everyone else. To my parents, who didn't have to question their "Indianess," their rules were less about being Indian and more about ensuring that I was successful and stable.

 

The problem was I didn't know how to hold onto my Indian heritage and still be an individual as it seemed there was no room for uniqueness or self-expression. In my desire to do things like work in the fashion industry, get tattoos, and backpack across Europe, I often felt like I was rebelling against my culture when I was merely just being myself. I began to wonder why getting a tattoo made me any less Indian, (it was in Sanskrit after all).
 
 
 
 
 

The irony was I often yearned to be "more" Indian. I wished I knew how to speak five Indian languages or that I found myself attracted to desi men or that I wanted to be a doctor or that I preferred bhangra and hip hop to rock music. Perhaps then I would be able to fit in somewhere. But trying to make myself fit into the mold of what everyone else thought was Indian was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It just wasn't me.

 

For a long time I shunned anything considered remotely Indian, frustrated by the fact that I felt I would never be accepted. I moved across the country, 3,000 miles away from my family, moved in with a boyfriend, and worked as a server at a trendy Los Angeles restaurant. If I could never fit in, why bother trying to be the good girl?

 

Interestingly enough, it was this space from my family and everything they stood for that allowed me to really discover my culture on my own terms. After a few years out West, I began to miss Indian culture and yearned for something I could get involved with to stay close to my roots. In my search I stumbled upon an Indian arts festival in Los Angeles, exposing me to a community of fascinating South Asian actors, writers, comedians, musicians, and dancers. Much to my relief, doctors and engineers were nowhere to be found.

 

I began to read books by native Indian and Indian American authors, such as Song of the Cuckoo Bird, Interpreter of Maladies. I discovered the South Asian wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I practiced cooking dishes like moong dal and tandoori paneer. I started appreciating Indian American music like that of Chee Malabar and M.I.A. (way before she became famous, I might add.) I began to practice yoga and meditate. I even started reading the Bhagavad Gita, (who knew Krishna was so wise?).

 

My new found appreciation of Indian culture began to expand my ideas of what it means to be Indian. Instead of resentment, I found myself filled with a sense of gratitude toward my culture. I love the sense of family and community that Indian culture fosters. I love that Indians take education so seriously. I love that Indians are loud and boisterous. I love that my nieces and nephews call me fiya and masi. Ultimately I was excited and relieved to find there was a place for me within Indian culture, and it didn't revolve around whether or not I was a doctor.

 

Even though I moved far away from home, I found myself growing closer to my family, including my stateside cousins. My entire life I had taken my negative feelings about Indian culture and transferred it on to them. Surely because they were so "Indian" (MBA degrees, kids, marriage, etc.), I felt they would reject me and my unorthodox ways. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Upon developing a relationship with them I found nothing but open arms and love from a family that will always care for me no matter the choices I make.

 

Now as I sit here older, wiser and back on the east coast, I know that my relationship with my culture is my own. And it's my job to nurture it. It doesn't rely on the perceptions of other Indians, or on what they think Indian culture is. I still meditate on most days and my apartment is decorated with silk paintings of Krishna and his ladies, wooden elephants and old sepia pictures of my family. I might never date an Indian or listen to Bollywood music, but that doesn't make me any less Indian. And maybe my parents will never be able to teach me Hindi, but that doesn't mean I can't learn it on my own.

 

R. Khona